Archives of architecture: Interview #1 at the Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam
First interview of the series "archives of architecture", we visit the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam with Behrang Mousavi, General Manager of Heritage and Cultural Action, to discover the vision of a future-oriented European cultural center.
espazium.ch: What is the origin of the Het Nieuwe Instituut archives?
Behrang Mousavi: The archives were established in the early twentieth century when the profession of architects banded together to found a museum for architectural drawings. In the 1900s, when museums were being established to conserve artworks of national cultural significance, architects also sought to form an institute for the preservation of Dutch architectural heritage. This came at a time when architecture was evolving into an organised profession, due to the efforts of prominent architects who founded the Maatschappij tot Bevordering der Bouwkunst (Society for the Promotion of Architecture), and the launch of journals dedicated to architecture, among other things.
The archive collection began in the early 20th century, when a group of architects took the initiative to found an architectural museum. But because the government had no intention of financing a new museum at that time, the plans were put on hold. The government did, however, decide that, when architects wanted to donate their archives for the collection of that future architectural museum, it would accept and manage that donation. In 1923, the first architects began to donate their archives, and the foundations of the collection were laid. However, no further progress was made for the next few decades. After WWII, a group of architects again floated plans for an architectural museum. They also started to collect archives – or at least began an archive register. When this became too big for them the government stepped in; it financed the founding of the NDB (the Netherlands Documentation Center for the Building Arts) ; which became a sub-department of the State Organization for Architectural Heritage. (1972)
The NDB was entrusted with all the archives that had been donated to the State between 1923 and 1970, and also began to collect new archives.
In the 1980s, the NDB and “Stichting Wonen”; an organization that collected documentation on living and housing, talked about cooperation. In 1988 this resulted in the founding of the NAi (the Netherlands Architecture Institute), which was funded by the government.
The museum was to be located in Rotterdam, and a competition to design the building was launched. The winner was architect Jo Coenen.
The NAi continued to expand the archive collection. In 2013 the NAi emerged with “Stichting Premsela” and the “Virtueel Platform” and became The New Institute.
You own nearly 700 architectural archives. What are your criteria for acquiring new funds and how have they evolved over time?
Our collection criteria are laid down in an acquisitions policy. In the past, our collection was largely biographical, and concentrated mainly on collecting the archives of prominent architects whose work is of national cultural value. We recently realigned our acquisitions strategy to focus on collecting and managing information on specific themes and socially relevant topics. Our strategy is guided by the trend analyses of the National Archive, which are based on documenting and collecting current social developments.
From 1923 to 1970, the collection accepted archives that were donated by architects. There were no criteria relating to importance or quality.
In 1972 it was decided to take a monographic approach. Various criteria were introduced, such as the importance and quality of the architect’s oeuvre, their ‘fame’, whether their work was featured in publications, membership of an architectural organization, and involvement in education.
Initially, archives of architects involved in the “modern movement” and the “Amsterdam School” were collected. In the 1990s, the emphasis shifted to archives from the post war period.
Today, we take a more open approach. Our aim is to collect archives that reflect significant developments in the Netherlands between 1960 and 2010.
What is the role or influence of architectural archives in the contemporary architecture culture?
Quantifying influence in concrete terms isn’t easy.
However, designers use the archive for idea development, and for the development of knowledge in their particular discipline. The archives also play a very practical role – they contain design dossiers that are consulted by architects involved in projects to renovate older buildings.
- By hosting exhibitions of archive material and publications, HNI contributes to knowledge development and awareness of the field of contemporary architectural practice.
- By organising programmes of debates and lectures that present and centre around archive material, the archive functions as a mirror for contemporary discussions among architects.
HNI’s collection of architectural archives is an important source of inspiration and research for contemporary architects, designers, students, curators and writers. The archives have a central place in the institute’s research and exhibition programmes. They have proved to be of significance not only in addressing historical subjects but also as a speculative wellspring of 150 years of progressive thinking.
Among your latest research programmes, we found the “Open Archives”, “Surprising Finds” or more recently “New Archives Interpretations”. What is the purpose of this series and how do they work?
The series seeks to explore the existing archive from new perspectives, and identify new cross-connections by taking a new look at how archives are arranged. The purpose is: to generate new connections and meanings.
“Surprising Finds” was an attempt to present collection material in a format that was different to the standard permanent exhibition concept. The series took a fresh approach, with each of themes selected by one of our archivists, not on the basis of architectural historic research.
You are a leading institution within the field of “digital culture”. What are the opportunities and limitations of digitisation in architecture and/or architecture archiving?
This is an enormous question. Instead of trying to answer it, I’ll outline the factors that need to be taken into consideration when responding to this question:
In architecture archiving the opportunities and limitations of digitalisation are profound, but relatively the same as in other forms of archiving. Digitalisation has a huge impact on the practice of architecture itself and the entire production chain. In many respects this is similar to other design practices.
Three basic aspects need to be taken into account more or less separately:
- 1 Digitalisation of non-digital archives.
- Helps to preserve content.
- Makes content more easily available (non-local access, more copies)
- 2 The digitalisation of the process of creating architecture (leading to ‘digital born’ archivable content’) impacts all aspects of the process of architecture:
- Questions, assignments acquire datafied elements. Solutions can be simulated both visually and in terms of urban flows of people, materials, finance.
- Digital infrastructure is part of the assignment.
- Research: physical, societal, political, financial aspects of the assignment can all be researched online, mostly even from other locations. Automated processed can be included in research.
- All phases of development use the same interfaces (screen + keyboard)
- Conception: malleability of digital content means all earlier phases of the design process are equally accessible and can easily be re-used and recombined in new design processes.
- Design: software aesthetics (Maya, Max, etc. ) BIS. The building and planning process can be simulated.
- Building: additive manufacturing, roboticised building practices, digital milling. Also here automated processes are on the rise.
- 3 The networking of digital processes – to connection of digital machines into a communication network.
- All aspects of the architectural process can be made public - not just the finalised building.
- Open source – open data – open content practices are possible at all stages of the process.
- Wide and fast circulation of imagery: Instagram architecture, logo architecture; (discourse moves to the visual)
There are many Architecture Archives all over the world like the CCA in Montreal, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles or the GTA Archives here in Switzerland. Do you have any relation with national or international Architecture Archives?
Yes, we collaborate in areas including knowledge sharing, coordinating acquisition strategies (although this is solely incidental, occurring when the need arises), as lender and, on occasion, jointly curate exhibitions.
Het Nieuwe Instituut is more than just an archive. What are the missions or visions of HNI today?
In addition to the State collection, Het Nieuwe Instituut is also a museum, an agency and a research institution. In its role as Museum, HNI organises exhibitions, events and an education programme. HNI established the Agency to support design professionals by means of international representation and an international visitor programme. The Research and Development department is the substantive engine of the organisation and comprises a Fellowship Programme and multi-year Research Programmes such as Automated Landscapes, Burn-Out and Architecture of Appropriation. Research into the relationship between innovation and design and how this is expressed across different design disciplines – in other words, how it affects a far broader field than simply architecture.
In summary, Het Nieuwe Instituut connects the past with the challenges of today and tomorrow.
- Behrang Mousavi - General Manager Heritage Department
With contribution from:
- Mr. Klaas Kuitenbrouwer (R&D department)
- Mr. Frans Neggers & Ms. Suzanne Mulder (heritage department)
- Mr. Taco de Neef (General Manager business and development).
Behrang Mousavi (1969), was appointed General Manager Heritage and Operations at Het Nieuwe Instituut (formerly the Netherlands Architecture Institute) in 2017 and had held the post of Head of Collection at the Netherlands Architecture Institute since 2010. Before joining the NAi, he was chief curator for prints and drawings collection at The Hague City Archives and later served as policy advisor for museums at the Municipality of The Hague. He is a museologist, heritage specialist, (policy) advisor, opinion maker and collector. In the 1990s he studied museology at the Reinwardt Academy in Amsterdam followed by art history at the University of Leiden. In the past 23 years he has given many lectures and worked as a curator and author on national and international projects. In 2019 he was ‘advisor at large’ for the Gloss and Happiness exhibition, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.
He is also the author of numerous essays and articles. Among his publications are: kunst als bindmiddel, Boekman no. 69, Voor de eeuwigheid? ‘Onzichtbaar maar niet verloren’, Nederlandse architectuur in 250 topstukken, Keuzes maken, De toekomst van digitale duurzaamheid and the collection book for children ‘Hoi, ik ben een lijn’ / ‘Hi, I’m a Line’.
Dossier: «Archives of architecture»
On the role of archives and their absence - Editorial by Yony Santos & Cedric van der Poel, November 2020